Road Security

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For the next two months or so, we pulled strongpoint duty by day, and guarded bridges by night. This was delightfully boring duty. We had acquired Merrimite cans from a clandestine source, and used them to hold ice that we begged from the supply folks at LZ Schueller and LZ Action. The ice kept our beer and sodas cool. So we sipped Budweiser and Coca Cola and got a tan as we guarded freedom and democracy in the mountains of Central Vietnam.

On any given day as many as twenty convoys in each direction made the trip through our section of Highway 19. Our purpose for being here was to prevent these convoys from being ambushed by the NVA/VC. And if the enemy did decide to ambush a convoy, we were in position to react to the ambush. I often marveled at the guts it must have taken to drive one of these thin-skinned trucks over this stretch of road where more ambushes occurred than on any other road in history.

Image: Strong point duty on Hwy 19E

Several times, while on strongpoint 10, we were sprayed with agent orange by C-123 Provider aircraft. We called these aircraft "Dumbo" and usually they flew parallel to the road on the south side and sprayed from formations of three aircraft. Usually they had a fighter escort, most times a lone F-100 Super Sabre. On one occasion they actually flew right over our position and sprayed us thoroughly with the defoliant. To the best of my knowledge, I have suffered no ill effects from this stuff to date and sure hope all the talk about the toxic effects of Dioxin is wrong. Time will tell I guess.

At night we alternated between guarding bridges, and augmenting the perimeter defense of LZ Schueller or LZ Action. On nights we guarded LZ Schueller, which was a "dry" firebase, we would make the ever dangerous beer-run to LZ Action, a "wet" firebase. The MPs would close the road at around 5pm every afternoon, and at this time all infantry and armor strongpoints were witdrawn either to bridges, or to a firebase. With the exception of the nightly ambush patrols the grunts put out along the road, the highway essentially reverted to the control of Chuck. Therefore, making the beer-run involved some degree of risk to life and limb.

These trips mimicked the officially sanctioned "Thunder Runs", which were usually conducted by a tank-infantry team. A Thunder-run involved driving at high speed down the highway while performing a recon-by-fire in order to draw enemy fire. When we made a beer-run, we would call in and advise headquarters that we were conducting a Thunder-run. Headquarters was pleased at our initiative in conducting Thunder-runs without being ordered to do so.

Beer-runs were exhilerating. A single tank would race west on Highway 19, load up as much beer as we could afford (sadly, the mercenary Red Legs at LZ Action actually had the lack of esprit d' corp and unit cohesivness to charge us for the beer), then race back to LZ Schueller. Sometimes, we enlivened the experience by doing a little "recon by fire" as we roared back east on Highway 19. An M-48A3 in good condition, running on all 12 cylinders and with properly adjusted tracks, could attain a maximum speed on a hard surfaced road of 40 mph. Now that doesn't sound like much, until you consider that the tank weighed 52 tons, we sat 12 feet above the roadway, the tank made more noise than a subway train, and that it tended to dart left and right of its own accord, requiring deft course corrections from the driver. Billy Kneipp was the best tank driver I had ever served with, but even so, the ride was usually a wild one and always great sport. It was one of the few ways that we could say "in your face" to Chuck.

Image: Yours truly with Charlie One-Six at LZ Action. Late Nov. '68

Occasionally we went into the bush with the infantry on sweeps. On some of these sweeps we had light contact with the NVA, and found the bodies of a number of NVA killed and wounded. Several times we were tasked with guarding and transporting POWs captured by the grunts or the scouts. Not only did we not abuse these POWs, but we actually spoiled them rotten. We all carried (by order of MACV) little cards in our wallets that spelled out the Geneva Prisoner of War Conventions of 1949 as they applied to the treatment of POWs. According to the rules, you are not required to do much beyond safeguard them from harm from enemy fire, and protect them from retaliation from friendly forces. MACV rules prevented us from feeding them or providing water until they had been evacuated to the rear for interrogation. The idea was to keep them guessing about whether we would treat them the way they treated our POWs, which was merciless and savage. The hope was that they would voluntarily blab everything they knew.

I discovered that, despite our reputation as womanizing, beer-drinking, over-paid boors, the average GI has a heart, and we more often than not gave the POWs water, and food, and cigarettes. We were usually astounded to see that these guys looked just as disheveled and ordinary as we did. They were not the supermen that Walter Chronkite and Charles Kuralt made them out to be on the CBS Evening news. I think that the reason we never took out our frustration on the POWs was that we all believed that to do so made us no better than them, and if we were no better than them, what the hell were we doing all this for?

We searched them, looking for that map that would tell us where General Giap's staff was holed up (we never found it), and other items considered significant by "Military Intelligence" (I still can't keep a straight face when I hear that term), but all we usually found were photos of a wife or girlfriend, or kids. We always gave these back. No secret codes, no orders of battle, maybe a pay-book, a pouch with some rice, and maybe a letter from home. That's all we ever discovered.

It did not rain at all during this period. I was delighted.

Demo Man

Because I had attended demolitions school while in Germany, I had been assigned the job of blowing up any NVA/VC ammo we discovered on our sweeps. In order to accomplish this we carried a supply of C4 plastic explosive, Detchord (looks like clothesline, explodes with a very high velocity, and used to "daisy-chain" Claymores together), blasting caps, and burn-type fuse.

On one sweep we uncovered a cache of NVA/VC 82mm mortar ammo in an underground bunker. There were perhaps three dozen rounds, along with some 7.62mm small-arms ammo. Stretch told me to blow it in place, so after examining the site I went to work with two 2 1/2lb blocks of C4, some Detchord, and an electric blasting cap from a Claymore.

After wiring the bunker we moved our tanks back about three hundred meters and I yelled "Fire In The Hole" three times as per tradition. I squeezed the Claymore charger and what followed was a huge explosion as the C4 set off the mortar rounds. There was a large tree stump next to the bunker and the force of the explosion lifted it high in the air, on a trajectory right for our tank.

We ducked and the tree stump missed us by about 30 feet, but the shower of dirt lifted by the explosion rained down on everyone for several more seconds. Stretch Grohman come over to where I was hiding and asked, matter of factly, "Think you used enough C4?".

Stretch Grohman performed some magic one day and procured for us several cases of the new LRRP rations that the Army had begun producing. Essentially freeze-dried meals, the LRRP (Long Range Recconaisance Patrol) rations were light-years beyond C-rations in terms of palatability. New meals included Chile Con Carne, Beef with Rice, Chicken with Rice, Spaghetti with Meatballs, and Scallops with Potatoes.

A Tank Of My Own

Rotations and other exigencies resulted in two of our tanks being without tank commanders. As a result, Grohman gave me command of Charlie One-Two. I guess I should have been happy about this, but I didn't want to leave my job as Grohman's gunner.

Charlie One-Two was the most disorganized vehicle in the platoon because there was no consistency in the crew assignments. When I arrived, SP4 Ray Bender was the driver, SP4 Chuck Barker was the "gunner", and SP4 Thomas Rapp was the loader. Barker's MOS was supply clerk. He had been the company supply clerk back at LZ Uplift and apparently pissed someone off. Whoever he pissed off had the authority to assign a supply clerk as the gunner on a tank. However, since the gunner rarely fired the main gun or coax, this wasn't much of an issue.

Image: Looking East to Bridge Two-six from strongpoint 8 on Hwy 19E. Late Nov '68

At 2035 hours 26 November 1968, while our tank was on night bridge-guard at bridge two-six, on Highway 19, Barker thought he saw movement. So did the infantrymen on the bridge. Barker opened fire on what was thought to be an NVA platoon sneaking up the middle of the road and a stray tracer from the caliber 50 blew up the pipeline running beside the road. It made one hell of an explosion, and I called in to say that "Charlie" had blown up the pipeline. Since this happened every night at more or less nine o'clock, they thought I meant "Charlie" as in Victor Charlie when I actually meant Charlie Barker.

Life on Charlie One-Two was boring. We pulled strongpoint duty all day, and guarded bridges at night. We always seemed to draw the same strongpoints: 10 and 11, and the same bridges: 25, 26, and 27 (near Pump Station #8, and across Hwy 19 from LZ Action). Sometimes we guarded strongpoints 14 and 15, which were in the Mang Yang Pass. These two strongpoints were the most exposed and guarding these was less boring than the others because of the possibility that Charles could sneak up on us.

As a way to combat the ennui (someone wrote "War is hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of terror". He must have served on Highway 19) we had grenade throwing contests (Rapp was slightly wounded by shrapnel from a baseball grenade), marksmanship contests (we shot at empty beer cans with various weapons including the main gun), and other silliness (we tossed smoke grenades into a stream to turn the water various colors, and we went fishing with grenades). I cleaned my M-16 frequently, perhaps 5 times a day. We also entertained some Boom-boom girls, who were brought out to us by young men riding Honda motor scooters. These were not to be confused with "Coke girls" who sold sodas, jungle-boots, poncho-liners, and anything else they could steal off the docks of Qui Nhon from the US Army.

One day, while entertaining a Boom-boom girl on my tank, the battalion commander of the 1st/50 Infantry (Mechanized) observed me and confiscated my military ID card. "Get it back from your platoon leader" he said, ominously. Visions of LBJ, the stockade not the Commander-In-Chief, danced through my head.

When we left our strongpoint and returned to LZ Schueller for the night, I went looking for Stretch. "Got something of yours" he said. "Care to tell me how I came to have it?" I did, expecting a royal ass chewing, but Stretch was magnanimous. "Be more careful in the future" he said, and that was that. I was stunned.

On December 12, I received a ticket from MPs of the 504th MP Bn for speeding on Highway 19. They pulled our tank over with their spiffy little Cadillac-Gage V-100 armored car, and advised me that the speed limit on this stretch of highway was 25 miles per hour. They said they clocked us at 35 miles per hour, which was probably true. I got into a shouting match with them when I realized they were serious about this and were actually going to give me, as vehicle commander, a ticket. I asked them if they knew there was a war on, but they ignored my sarcasm and handed me the ticket. I never did anything in response to the ticket, and wonder if they're still looking for me.

Ray Bender rotated on December 20th, so Chuck Barker took over as our driver. Bender's rotation left us with a three man crew which made the nightly guard duty more tedious. We would remain one man short of a full crew for the remainder of my tour.

On Christmas Eve, my tank was assigned to accompany a platoon of C Company, 4th Bn 503rd Infantry (Airborne) on a sweep into the bush south of Highway 19 west of LZ Schueller. Even in the presence of screening infantry, tanks are not supposed to operate alone. That had been our SOP since I had arrived in country. We always operated in pairs, at least. So we were not very happy at the prospect of beating brush alone, with the infantry on the back-deck.

The grunt platoon leader boarded my tank soon after we had left the highway and began to move through the woods. He said that it was Christmas, and even though he was Jewish and didn't celebrate the holiday, he didn't want to see any of his men get whacked on Christmas Eve. He said that we would call-in periodically and give fictitious location reports to Oscar, while we set up a small defensive perimeter. He asked if I had any objection to this plan. I enthusiastically endorsed this idea, since I didn't want to get whacked on Christmas Eve either.

Everything went smoothly for a few hours. We gave the grunts guided tours of the tank (or iron-coffin as they called it) and stayed out of trouble. Then we heard the ominous crunch of exploding 105 rounds. What we had not counted on was that headquarters, in an uncharacteristic display of support, had decided to fire H&I missions in our wake. Or more precisely, what they thought was our wake. This would have presumably killed any NVA/VC sneaking up behind us (although, with the noise a tank makes, sneaking was not really required).

Realizing that they might drop a round on our heads at any moment, we scrambled to get to the position that we were supposed to be at, most-rickey-tick. We piled the grunts, almost fifty of them, onto the tank and started a wild drive through the woods. There were so many grunts on the tank I couldn't see, and neither could Chuck Barker, the driver du jour. I was afraid that one of the grunts would fall off and we would run over him. How the hell would I explain that?

After what seemed like an eternity, with exploding 105 rounds providing background music behind us, we reached highway 19. As we prepared to move in a more orderly fashion to the coordinates where we we supposed to be, Oscar called and said to return to LZ Scheuller for the Christmas Cease-fire. The next day we ate one Christmas Dinner I will never forget.

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Creation Date: Thursday, June 13, 1996
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 1997
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1996